The Bad Movie Report

The Unknown Terror

Once again I find myself hearkening back to my amazingly misspent youth, in particular to the time I devoted to watching horror movies on TV. One of the stations I really miss was the impoverished NBC affiliate out of Corpus Christi, who did so much with so little. I never missed an episode of Colonel Christopher, who was some space jockey with an acerbic penguin puppet sidekick named Snowjob and a more even-keeled space bird named Gimlet. I really loved those characters. God knows I wasn't tuning in for the cartoons, which ran to The Mighty Hercules ("You're coming with me, Daedalus!" "Yi!"*) and The New Adventures of the Three Stooges. Hm. A guy in a spaceship with a couple of puppets for company.... Where have I heard that before....?

Where was I? Oh, yes, I was leading into that channel's selection of horror films. The CBS affiliate had all the Universal flicks, and the ABC station seemed to have a lock on all the British movies, leaving Col. Christopher's employers with the really psychotronic stuff, stuff like Giant from the Unknown, starring Jethro Bodine's father; the Nazis-terrorizing-wild-women epic She Demons; the durable Frankenstein's Daughter, and this little gem. I use the word gem in the sense of the small powdered donuts which bear that brand name. A little sweet, but not at all filling.

"Oh God no!  Not Blair Witch 2!"Things start off with a bubbling pool, which is located in some cave. We know this because a fellow with a miner's helmet is shimmying through a nearby tunnel. He sees the camera and screams. What caused him to scream (not "Yi!", unfortunately)? Why, it must be some form of UNKNOWN TERROR, as the titles immediately assure us.

Now hold on tight for the exposition: Folks in a bar watch a TV newscast telling us that millionaire explorer Dan Matthews (John Howard) has returned from Central America, where he was searching for the missing spelunker, who vanished during the credits. The fellow was looking for the "Cuava Muerte" (or so they seem to be saying), which the newscaster informs us means "The cave... of death!" (For a minute I was afraid I was accidentally watching Mesa of Lost Women again) Matthews avers he has found some important information, and will soon be making a return trip.

Let's make a deal: lose the pompadour and you can work with John Woo.Watching the TV with particular interest is a chap we will soon come to know as Pete Morgan (Paul Richards). Pete sorta looks like a youngish Lance Henriksen with a pompadour. Yep, as strange as it sounds. "Do it again," he says to the bartender, which is for some reason a cue for a song by SIR LANCELOT, KING OF THE CALYPSOS!

No, wait, this is some sort of party at Dan's mansion. Pete crashes the party and offers his services to Dan. He is at first hampered in this by Dan's wife, Gina (Mala Doomsday Machine Powers), who points out his gimp leg and begs him not to humiliate himself. Dan tells his guests, two anthropologists, that Pete's near-crippling was his fault; in an earlier expedition, Dan screwed up big time and was only saved by Pete's quick the cost of his own mobility. Oh, yeah, Gina used to be Pete's girlfriend, and the missing guy is Gina's brother. For a cheap little horror movie, it really packs in the soap opera.

SIR LANCELOT, KING OF THE CALYPSOS rocksAnd what clue did Dan bring back? Why, a song for SIR LANCELOT, KING OF THE CALYPSOS to sing! Unlike Sir's previous number, this one is a little downbeat for a calypso, all about people suffering and dying and stuff. Somehow, Dan deduces that this song is about the Cave of Death, and he has brought along an Indian to show them to the very village that gave rise to that song. The native, Raoul (Gerald Gilden) is suddenly reluctant to return to his village; fortunately, the two anthropologists start confusing everything with talk of purgatory and how they never actually thought of the possibility of an altar inside a cave (which makes me wonder where they got their doctorates).

Well, Dan decides that he really will need the expertise of his gimp friend and accepts Pete's offer. Soon a jeep containing the two men, Gina and Raoul rolls onto the soundstage containing the village; the populace gathers around, curiously. Dan asks Raoul if he's going to get out and say hi to his friends. The Indian reluctantly exits the Jeep, and is immediately swallowed by the smiling crowd. Literally - seconds later, Pete paws through the throng, trying to find their guide, but he has vanished. The jefe of the village arrives - you know he is the jefe because he is old, stern, and has the only straw hat that doesn't make you quip, "How about a nice Hawaiian Punch?" He gets rid of the interlopers by pointing off-camera and intoning "Americano doctor! That way!"

"Hey grandpa!  What's for supper?"Thus do they find the villa of Dr. Ramsay (Gerald Milton), who is involved in the most un-mad scientist pursuit of canning fruit. More exposition follows: Ramsay has been in this "tropical backwash" for fifteen years, studying local flora, especially fungi, for antibiotic research. He's especially taken with one strain of fungus that "reproduces by binary fission". Asked about the Cave of Death and reports of local human sacrifices, Ramsay denies any knowledge of a cave, but explains that when he arrived, he conquered the village's smallpox epidemic, and now outranks the God of Death. Thus, whenever another sacrifice is chosen, Ramsay claims the unfortunate for his own, and "sends them someplace safe."

Anybody else see where this is going?

Well, there's one sacrifice that didn't go "somewhere safe", and that is Ramsay's 'wife', Concha (May Wynn). At dinner, Ramsay rushes out because he's heard jungle drums. Gina asks Concha is they can have some of the canned fruit; Concha drops the jar, resulting in an enraged Ramsay taking a whip to the woman over the protests of the other white folk, especially Pete, who has taken something of a shine to the young woman. "It's gone bad, anyway," says Gina. "Look, it's full of mold." Ramsay admits that he uses the fruit as a culture for his magic fungus.

As there is a storm that night, Dan and Gina walk into town and search out the jefe. Using his Powerful American Money, Dan offers the chief $200 if he will take them to Raoul. The jefe ushers them into his house, and points to a nearby bowl. It's 1957, so we don't see anything, but we are given to believe that the bowl holds Raoul's tongue. Gina understandably freaks, and the two understandably retreat to the villa.

Upon their return, they find that Pete may not have the Power of American Money, but he does understand the Power of the American Dress; he has bribed Concha with one of Gina's, and in exchange she is going to show Dan and Pete a place where they can hear "the voices of people suffering in purgatory". Sure enough, in a clearing near a rock outcrop, the men hear eerie moaning coming from the ground...

"Can I borrow a towel?   I went through the car wash with the windows down!  Hello?"Meantime, Gina, wearing her gothic romance nightgown, sees a hideous figure peering in the window: it appears to be a man covered in soap suds (we'll get back to that later). Of course, Gina leaves the safety of the house to be pursued by the soapy specter through the jungle (cue Creedence song) in her peignoir. The chase comes to an end when she runs into two Indians carrying bows; as she cowers on the ground, she hears two arrows hit their mark. When she looks up, she is alone.

Later, Ramsay's manservant Lino (Duane Grey) offers to take the two men to the cave for that magic amount of $200 American. Unbeknownst to the two men, however, the dastardly domestic takes off with the horses once they are inside the cave. Pete and Dan quickly find the sacrificial altar, overlooking a 200 foot drop; fortunately the men are carrying a cool little roll-up ladder that gets them to the bottom, where they find the skeletons of earlier sacrifices, and the somewhat fresher body of the unfortunate Raoul. Further along, they discover the same bubbling pool from the beginning of the movie, and a nearby rockslide; in the debris, an entrenching tool, much like they one the missing man carried.

After digging out the rockslide and finding a narrow passage, Dan has an assault of guilt and insists on going into the next chamber first. Unknown to either of the men, it has been raining non-stop up on the surface - Gina frets in the villa about the possibility of a flash flood in the cave.

Good call, Gina! Pete bellows for Dan get back to the main chamber, as a trickle of water that followed them down the ladder is is rapidly becoming a torrent. Dan has problems of his own, however: in the next chamber, he is being stalked by shadowy, soapy figures. Pete eventually fights his way back up the flood and limps back to the villa to retrieve his diving gear. Ramsay insists on sending Lino to help, and Gina refuses to sit on her butt while her husband is in trouble (you go, girl!).

They find the bubbling pool chamber again (all the water has run off) and Pete and Gina shimmy into the newly-excavated tunnel, dragging their gear behind them. The treacherous Lino, however, dynamites the tunnel shut behind them. Too bad for him he used such a short fuse, as a fair-sized chunk of the ceiling falls on him, too.

"Hello!"  "Welcome to Los Angeles!"  Would like a copy of the Watchtower?"In the next chamber, Gina and Pete find Dan in a bad way, and they also find what worked him over: the aforementioned shadowy, soapy figures. Pete engages in some Captain Kirk-style hand-to-hand with one of the Soap Guys and finally knocks him into the bubbling pool, which apparently kills him. Perhaps the pool was supposed to be lava, or really hot springs; I prefer to think that the water just washed the suds off him. Anyway, this panics the other Soap Guys, who hightail it out of the immediate vicinity.

Pete, thank goodness, makes with the exposition and finally cues us in that those aren't supposed to be soap suds, but Ramsays pet fungus; the sacrifices he "sent to someplace safe" he has actually been using for experiments (what that has to do with antibiotics is beyond me, but that's mad science for you). Not only that, but a fresh crop of suds - er, fungus - is flowing down the walls, threatening to overtake them.

There was one point in my stupider, more impoverished days, when I ran out of dishwasher detergent, and tried laundry detergent instead. Here is a clue: don't do that. It was astounding seeing a wall of suds come out of one little apartment-sized dishwasher. The amount of sheer soapage streaming down the cavern walls brought this memory back to me. Stupid movie.

This is a picture of Pete pushing that guy into the soap suds.  Really!  Try squinting, you'll see it!Pete posits that the suds.... dammit, the fungus... is coming from somewhere, and follows it to its source, careful to not let any touch him, you see. He gets jumped by another Soap Guy, and Pete forces him back into a veritable waterfall of scrubbing bubbles. Again, astoundingly, this seems to kill him. You would think that applying more bubble bath to a guy covered with it would be like coals to Newcastle, but no.....

Pete finds, at the end of a corridor, a door leading into the villa, with Ramsay mocking him through the window. We find out why Ramsay is studying fungi: it never occurs to him that he's taunting a guy with a pickaxe in his hands. Glass doesn't put up much resistance to Mr. Pickaxe, no sir, and soon Ramsay finds himself facing an angry Pete sans intervening door. Ramsay's not that worried; he claims that fresh air kills the fungus (wha?) and Pete opening the door has already killed his pet. But no, somebody left the dishwasher on, and the fungus is still growing. "It's mutated!" yelps Ramsay (the guy is a scientist, after all). Ramsay's also prepared for this: he has set explosive charges in the tunnel, and will seal off the fungus before it can take over the world like The Giant Chicken Heart.

"Get me a big goddam mop and get it NOW!!!!"Pete's having none of that, since his pals are still back in the main chamber. He tells Concha to set off the charges while he forces Ramsay to go back with him. Again with the short fuses! The ensuing cave-in bonks Ramsay on the head with a rock the size of a dog; he is summarily eaten by his soa-fungus!!!!! I was going to say fungus!!!!!!

Dan, suffering from a broken back, manfully expires, leaving Gina to his pal's care. Pete and Gina put on the diving gear and barely make it out to an underground stream ahead of the..... ahem..... fungus. They surface near the beach, and that's the end. I guess we have to figure out which woman Pete wound up with. The end.

The Unknown Terror never tries to be anything more than what it is -a B-movie in the truest sense of the word. It is competently made, fairly well acted, and the characters have a bit more shading than is usual in such enterprises- although Ramsay is the least menacing villain I've ever seen. Pete the hero, in particular, almost made me proud to be a gimp myself. The movie's major failing is that the sequence where Dan and Pete descend into the Cave of Death on a less-than-steady rope ladder, and subsequently have to swing like Indiana Jones over the deadly bubbling pool - this sequence is far more tense and exciting than the supposed climax of the movie. The fact that the monster is patently Mr. Bubble doesn't help much either.

It's that little bit of cost-cutting that probably doomed it, after all; there are far worse movies out there that are still widely available in one form or another; but who, really, wants to market a movie where the monster is soap suds? Well, fellow B-Master Ken Begg on his dream DVD label, probably, but that's beside the point.

"Boo!  I'm up here, in the shadows!  Boo!  BOO, DAMMIT!"I think the major reason this movie has stayed with me for so many years, way beyond the impact that it should have had, is that it awakened to my young mind the concept that anything could be a monster - cripes, if these guys could get away with soap suds, what could I get away with? And this, I think, was probably the beginning of my downfall, my lifelong fascination with watching these terrible movies, and ultimately, making them.

Now all I need to do is figure out who to sue.




- May 29, 2000